September 14, 1999
by Ernie Pinson
PIECES OF EIGHT TO CONSIDER FOR DRAMA, MUSIC, ART, AND BOOK REVIEWS
WHAT TO DO
WHAT NOT TO DO
There are those who argue that a reviewer should not characterize, evaluate, or assess; that he should only present, report, and record the factual details. But as you can see from the definitions above, that defeats the role of a reviewer, reducing him to a recording machine. A reviewer has to compress the details of the performance into a single column (my reviews average about 850 words), and he must selectively mention actors, events, and details, for clearly he can't cover them all. Thus, an important part of the reviewer's job is to establish values and standards in terms of art and its purpose. It is also his job to help readers distinguish quality from the mundane and help them see not only value, but the basis for evaluation. How can an audience learn different types and levels of art if I do not bring my training to bear honestly on the object being reviewed?
A reviewer must make judgements based on comparisons with other arts of like nature from other regions. He per force must evaluate relative to other performers, cities, museums; otherwise the audience is never able to assess the "worth" of the reviewer. He must serve the interest of the public, not the artist, not the advertisers, not the performers, not the company, or theater, or concert hall, or museum, not even the Board of Directors, for they all have vested, self-promotional interests.
As a writer about and for the public, my allegiance is first and foremost to the public. Readers depend upon me to give them my best informed and fair comments of plays, concerts, operas, museums, books, I come across. They expect my review to be honest, balanced, and reasonable in the assessment. "Balanced" is a key word here. A reviewer doesn't want to be all negative, because that surely must be something good to say, But it can't be all peaches and cream either with glowing accolades. This means, of course, that in some cases an actor, director, or performer may incur some negative remarks, and that may hurt. But it is his job to critique, to explain, to assess the performance as well as the audience's reaction to that performance, and not, thereby, to sugar coat or vaguely allude to what he considers flaws or short comings. It is not his purpose to build up the arts in a community, nor is it his function to tear them down. It is, rather, his job to describe and assess what others do to create, build up, or tear down the community arts. Thus a reviewer is by nature a critic.
There are three kinds of generally accepted criticisms -- constructive, destructive, and descriptive. The first two types should be obvious; the last one means the reviewer speaks with a silver, vague tongue, or with no tongue at all -- his words lack substance. In fact, the best known reviewers (mostly in New York) have built their reputations on insightful positive and negative criticism, for readers come to depend on them to tell them where to spend their time and money, when to buy or not buy a book with their last dollar, when to see a good play or to avoid a bad one. Of course he must write the review in the context of its purpose -- are the performers amateur or professional? novices or experienced? little theater or adult theater? And of course he must feel for and treat gently those who may be young or new on stage, in print, or on canvas.
Laura Worsham of The Harbinger is an excellent book reviewer. She is not satisfied with a mere reporting of the plot or facts of a books. She assumes a reader can get the facts for him/herself. Nor is Laura satisfied with glowing accolades, or vague sweeping generalizations empty of substance. Laura's job, then, is to take her readers beyond the obvious facts to another level of realization; and she does it well without appearing snobbish (see her review of Consilence: The Unity of Knowledge Dec. 98 issue, p. 15). This is not to say other reviewers or readers must agree with her. It is to say, rather, that Laura's view is an 'informed," "studied" opinion that should be reckoned with. Her public depends upon her for that "informed" opinion, be it good or bad. (Pick up any New York Times Book Review and notice the different approaches.)
According to Plato, when Socrates is brought to trial and ultimately executed for his critical views of the Athenian Republic, he refers to himself as "the gadfly" (a large horse fly) sent by the gods to show the Republic its flaws and its merits. You need me, argued Socrates, because all the others just tell you what you want to hear, that what you do is always right. I alone tell you where flaws exist that cause republics to crumble. So it is with reviewers who are similar "gadflies." The public reads reviews precisely because they are guides conceived in honesty and absolute objectivity, for who else will honestly and objectively tell the public the truth about itself and about the arts.